Despite a "shocking" time trial at the Australian Championships to start his 2018 season, Ben O'Connor is confident of a strong showing at the Santos Tour Down Under next week. The Dimension Data rider quickly moved on from "the day to forget" with an active ride in the nationals road race, his performance gaining attention and earning the tag of a rider to watch in the battle for the ochre jersey at the WorldTour opener.
O'Connor and Lachlan Morton will be key riders for 2013 Tour Down Under champion Tom-Jelte Slagter in the six-stage race starting Tuesday. The 22-year-old though is looking to take an opportunity to add to his Tour of Austria stage from last year should the option present itself in Uraidla or on Willunga Hill, where Richie Porte is seeking a fifth successive win.
"I still think for Willunga it is Richie's hill. It is pretty incredible what he can do there. It would be great to try," O'Connor told Cyclingnews in Adelaide. "That Norton Summit stage could maybe be a chance to open up but it is quite quick though. I don't know if anything would work but you may as well try. We have former winner Tom-Jelte Slagter so we have confidence. You can go late and get the bonus seconds and that is where you get your advantage from.
"It would be nice to be in a WorldTour race and hopefully be deep into those finales as part of the race instead of just racing and holding on. I am looking forward to seeing how it pans out like that."
At 1.88 metres tall, O'Connor is hard to miss in the peloton but it was a solo breakaway on the People's Choice Classic ahead of the 2017 Tour Down Under that drew attention to the West Australian. O'Connor would finish the race in 32nd place, riding in assistance of Nathan Haas, who placed fourth overall.
Looking back at his first season in the WorldTour ranks, O'Connor says the solo breakaway is one thing that he won't be replicating in year two.
"Probably not, probably not," said O'Connor with rapturous laughter when asked whether he would be making the same move Sunday night.
Instead, O'Connor is saving his legs for the race and ensuring he can be there as deep into the finale as possible, an ambition he holds for the entirety of 2018 after 61 race days of learning and gathering experience in 2017.
"You think you know what you are doing but you so don't. I look back to Tour Down Under and Catalunya and even when I went to the Ardennes, I had no idea," O'Connor said. "I think I will still figure out this year that I am so far off knowing how to plan things perfectly. At least I made the progression of being a little bit more relaxed. I was really straight cut last year and it can work for certain periods but it can't work for all year. Not for me, I am too cheerful for that. It is funny to look back at but now it is exciting because I see it going on an upward trend."
After the Tour Down Under, O'Connor heads to the Tour of Oman for the first time and from there, begins a racing block alongside Louis Meintjes. The South African is confirmed for May's Giro d'Italia and O'Connor is aiming to impress across the coming months to secure his Grand Tour debut in support of the South African climber.
"I go to Oman after this and hopefully look after Louis in those other stage races leading up the to the Giro, Catalunya and Alps, which is the next key objective of getting to those big mountains days and being there for that final climb and doing as much as I can for Louis. He is the man," he said.
"I would love to do the Giro. It is a race that attracts so much attention. The Tour still almost scares you in its size, its grandeur. It is huge with the pressure, media and stress around it. I would love to start with something like the Giro and see I how I go. "
As the last Australian winner at an Austrian race, O'Connor is also looking to make his first Worlds appearance in the green and gold. The challenging and hilly course suits the characteristics of O'Connor and would be the only race in the year that he would be backing Porte for victory.
"Doing Worlds would be really cool. It is a brilliant, extremely difficult course and I would love to put my hand up and say I am willing to be selected," said O'Connor. "There are plenty of good climbers in Australia though and of course, you will have guys like Richie who will be deep, deep into the finales so to help a guy like that at Worlds would be brilliant."
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